Rights Watchdog: Bangladesh’s Response to Violence Against Women ‘Deeply Inadequate'

Kamran Reza Chowdhury
BD-women-violence-acid620.JPG A survivor of an acid attack takes part in an awareness rally about violence against women in Dhaka, Nov. 24, 2010.

Violence against women almost always goes unpunished in Bangladesh, Human Rights Watch says in a new report urging the government to address a stark lack of judicial consequences as the South Asian nation works toward eliminating domestic abuse by 2025.

Gender-based violence is prevalent there because of immense barriers to securing justice for abused women and girls, according to the New York-based international rights watchdog. The obstacles include gender bias, poor implementation of laws, institutional flaws that let abusers get away with brutalizing women, and woefully inadequate support for survivors, it said.

In spite of a stated 2025 goal of wiping out such violence, “[t]he government response remains deeply inadequate and barriers to reporting assault or seeking legal recourse are frequently insurmountable,” Human Rights Watch said among the findings in its 65-page report, which was based on dozens of interviews and published last week.

More than 70 percent of married women or girls in Bangladesh have faced some form of abuse at the hands of an intimate partner, HRW said, citing a 2015 survey by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics and the United Nations Population Fund. These numbers are likely only a fraction of the true levels of gender-based violence, according to the report by HRW.

In 2020, violence against women and girls in Bangladesh appears to have “further increased” during the COVID-19 pandemic, the report said, citing statistics compiled by BRAC, a Bangladesh-based international development organization. In March and April, the NGO documented a nearly 70 percent jump in distress calls about reports of violent incidents toward women and girls compared with the same period last year, HRW said.

BenarNews reached out to Abul Hossain, who heads the office at the Ministry of Women and Children’s Affairs whose mission is to stop gender-based violence, to ask him why this remains such a widespread problem in 2020.

He suggested that cases of such violence had decreased.

Two key laws, enacted in 2000 and 2010, have had a “deterrent effect” on violence against women, Hossain said.

In 2000 and 2010, Bangladesh enacted what HRW in its report called “landmark pieces of legislation on gender-based violence.”

They were The Women and Children Repression Prevention Act of 2000 and the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act of 2010, which Hossain referred to.

While they are laudable, these laws haven’t acted as much of a deterrent against gender-based violence, HRW said in its report.

The reported increase this year in cases of domestic violence comes as Bangladesh marks anniversaries of these two laws and as the country enters “the final phase of its national plan to build “a society without violence against women and children by 2025,” the rights advocacy group said.

‘The ground reality’

The barriers to justice are the reason for Bangladesh’s low conviction rate in cases related to violence against women, HRW said, citing data from a 2016 investigation by the Bangladesh government and the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ).

In 2016, of the more than 16,000 cases of violence against women under investigation, about 3 percent resulted in a conviction compared with a 7.5 percent conviction rate in other cases being investigated during that same period, the joint probe by the government and GIZ found.

Hossain, the senior ministry official, said he didn’t have data on conviction rates, but added that if they were low, that was because survivors of domestic abuse often don’t file cases against those who brutalize them.

“The ground reality in Bangladesh, is that the victims and their family members do not want to file cases against the abusers. One of the main causes is, family members come to a compromise with the accused persons. In most of the cases, the victims, after a certain time, withdraw the cases through compromise,” Hossain told BenarNews.

“Married women are forced to withdraw the charges against their husbands so as to not break up their family as it will affect the future of their children,” he said, adding, “But those who decide to continue the legal battle, they get justice.”

Distrust of police

Conviction rates are low because criminal justice agencies are ineffective, Prokash Biswas, a veteran lawyer and Rasheda K. Chowdhury, a former adviser to the 2007-2009 caretaker government, told BenarNews.

There are problems associated with every agency that is part of this system, Biswas and Chowdhury said.

Poor implementation begins at the first level, the police station, according to Chowdhury.

“The tortured women face traumatic experiences when they go to the police stations for filing cases of rape, violence and other forms of torture. Often, the police are not interested in registering these cases. And even when they record cases, they are not serious,” Chowdhury said.

Her testimony is in line with what HRW learned in the 50 interviews it conducted for the report, including with acid attack survivor Sadia. The “lack of trust in police is tragically common,” the report by the watchdog group said.

A. K. M. Shahidul Haque, a former national police chief, acknowledged that police often are lax in logging cases because, he said, at least a quarter of such cases filed are fake.

“Many women file false cases to victimize opponents for personal and familial enmity as well as disputes over land ownership. So the police in many cases take time before filing a case under this tough law,” Haque said.

Another reason police do not file such cases is that they “don’t want to break up a family,” Haque said.

“It is hard to keep a family unbroken when a wife files a case against her husband,” he told BenarNews.

Observations similar to Haque’s were cited in HRW’s report as being among the reasons gender-based violence is rampant in Bangladesh.

The international rights group cited a finding from a recent report on Bangladesh’s compliance with the U.N.’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

“Existing rules, policies and plans addressing gender-based violence against women are rarely implemented due to stereotypes and gender bias, and lack of gender sensitivity on the part of law enforcement officials,” a committee overseeing the convention said in its report.

Backlog of cases

Even if a survivor of gender violence manages to get her report logged at a police station, her problems have only just begun, said Biswas, the attorney.

“The laws are not applied properly by the police, administration and even by the judicial system,” Biswas said.

The Women and Children Repression Prevention Act stipulates that cases filed under it must be concluded in six months. They rarely ever are, the lawyer said.

“The police often do not submit their investigation reports before the court, delaying the framing of charges. In many cases, we see that one single judge is tasked with disposing of hundreds of cases of torture, rape and repression against women and children. One judge cannot settle all the cases, therefore cases drag on for years,” said Biswas.

As it is, Bangladesh is currently facing a backlog of some 3.7 million criminal cases, HRW said.

When cases do get filed, survivors of gender violence and their families are given the runaround in the courts, which often makes them vulnerable to threats from the accused, HRW said.

On Wednesday, Bangladesh’s leader, who is a woman, called for action to clear the backlog of nearly 4 million pending cases as quickly as possible

“The government is ready to extend any cooperation to this end, but we don’t want this huge caseload to remain pending,” Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said, according to the state-run BSS news service.

'I'm afraid'

The title of the report by Human Rights Watch, “I Sleep in My Own Deathbed,” comes from the experience of Sadia, a young Bangladeshi victim of domestic abuse who was among those interviewed for the report.

In April 2016, Sadia’s husband tried to kill her by getting his friends to pour nitric acid on her body, the report quoted her as recalling. Despite four surgeries and months in the hospital, she lost an eye and an ear despite as a result of the attack.

“My husband stood watching as my dress fell straight off and my necklace and earrings melted into my skin,” Sadia told HRW.

When HRW interviewed her in 2017, Sadia’s husband was in custody. He still calls her from prison, asking for her to drop the case against him, HRW said.

“I’m afraid if he ever gets out, he will try to kill me,” Sadia said.

The specter of financial ruin, the danger associated with reporting these cases in a low-conviction environment and society’s belief that gender-based violence isn’t serious are all factors that discourage victims from filing police cases – and is also the reason why so few of the accused are punished, HRW’s report said.

When asked about these issues and whether they were obstacles in building a society without violence against women by 2025, government spokesman Hossain replied, “We have to do more.”


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